Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Bernie: Text and Music

After a long wait, Richard Linklater's new film Bernie is out. Jack Black plays Bernie Tiede, an assistant funeral home director in East Texas who befriends the town hag, played by Shirley Maclaine. He kills her, but months go by before anyone notices and few seem to think ill of him for it.  Multiple positive reviews have pointed to how the film showcases Black's skills as an actor who can balance comedy and tragedy in equal weight and pull off an emotional range far more complex than his usual goofball personas.

But what I'm excited about is his singing. My good friend Graham Reynolds' new soundtrack has just been released by Lakeshore Records. On the lead single, 'Love Lifted Me,' Black appears as a convincing, if slightly theatrical gospel singer. On other tracks, the theatricality is an asset, because he's tackling show tunes like 'Beautiful Dreamer' and 'Seventy-Six Trombones.' These two styles, Broadway and backwoods church, come together uniquely in a short rendition of 'He Touched Me.' "Shackled by a heavy burden," Black sings, "'neath a load of guilt and shame." The vocal delivery is a tad comic, while the lyrics, wholly devoid of kitsch, are deadpan. This single minute (fifty-seven seconds, to be exact) captures the complexity of Black's character, a charming, publicly beloved performer of songs and good deeds whose dark side is a bit hard to believe at first, before its horror sinks in. The rest of Reynolds' excellent soundtrack plays on this duality, placing mournful string hymns, jubilant country jams, and silly accordion-led Musak in disconcerting juxtapositions.

The other hidden gem behind the scenes of the film is the original Texas Monthly article, written by Skip Hollandsworth in the wake of the true story. Hollandsworth is a master craftsman, beginning the piece with a classic scene of Texana, the district attorney sipping ice tea at a BBQ joint and gabbing with townspeople, realizing how uninterested they are in punishing Bernie for killing a women none of them liked very much to begin with. By the end of the article, we have more questions than answers, all boiling down to the simple question of why Bernie did it, and the slightly more complex question of how we can reconcile his two personalities: beloved man about town and killer. Like Hollandsworth, Black too refuses to answer the question, instead singing and acting out the insoluble tension of Bernie's personality.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Buzz Bissinger and After Friday Night Lights

Buzz Bissinger admits to feeling like he “professionally died” after the publication of Friday Night Lights, his account of a high school football season in Odessa twenty-two years ago. The book sold nearly two million copies and spawned a film and two television shows (In addition to the recent famous one, there’s an obscure one from the early 90’s called Against the Grain). “It is invariably the way I am introduced,” Bissinger laments, “as if it’s part of my name- ‘This is Buzz-Bissinger-he-wrote-Friday-Night-Lights.”

Contrary to what most people assume, Friday Night Lights is not Bissinger’s only achievement. A Prayer for the City, about urban politics in 1990’s Philadelphia, is a fascinating portrait that signals his ability to write about subjects other than sports.

But FNL hit a zeitgeist. College students in Florida made pilgrimages to Odessa for spring break just to feel what Bissinger describes in the book. High school football and Texas became synonymous in a way they never had before. Last year, the Texas State History Museum in Austin put up an exhibit all about the state’s obsession. When Texas Monthly created a list of the top 10 Texas films, they mentioned FNL because of a feeling that the football-Texas link couldn’t be ignored. The irony was that Bissinger’s book itself was responsible for that link.

Last week, Bissinger released After Friday Night Lights, a brief account of his two-decade relationship with Boobie Miles, the promising young player whose injury and subsequent fall from glory serves as one of the book’s most powerful examples in its larger story about how high school students are turned into demigods for a year or two and then totally forgotten.

Fans of the original book will bask in the nostalgia of Bissinger’s trip back to West Texas, but the bulk of the story is Boobie’s. Interwoven with a contemporary story of driving around Texas with Boobie, Bissinger narrates how he became the most forgotten and downtrodden of any of high school football stars he chronicled in 1988, and how his guilt over receiving so much acclaim turned into a complex paternal relationship.

Bissinger takes you behind the scenes emotionally, into his struggles with the moral issues of his own success, which meant making money off of a failed football star who spent the rest of his life working menial jobs and barely avoiding prison. Bissinger gave him money for a car and various handouts over the years, and eventually came to think of Miles as a ‘fourth son.’

In Bissinger’s telling, Miles’ life unfolds as a series of more powerful figures who use discard him: his father, who beat him savagely, Hollywood, which made money off his story, and Miles himself, who lives in his ‘could have been great’ hallucination for years, only to throw himself away with self-pity. Bissinger explains how he became determined to avoid becoming just another figure who benefits from Miles, and in the process became a father, guardian angel, therapist and friend.

Although Bissinger does not refrain from writing in the first person and making impassioned arguments in the original Friday Night Lights, here he becomes intensely personal and allows himself to appear almost painfully fragile. He reassesses how he characterized certain people in the original book. He tries to make amends by revealing the name of the coach who called Boobie a “big ol’ dumb Nigger,” a moment that matters to few readers except Boobie himself, and thus gives you the feeling of entering, for a brief moment, their intimate relationship.

As a result of Bissinger’s very personal goals, his writing sometimes feels sloppy and emotionally overplayed. By refusing to clean it up, he’s making a powerful statement. He’s refusing to construct himself as the morally superior writer that crops up in so much nonfiction writing. “The journalistic ‘I’ is an overreliable narrator, a functionary to whom crucial tasks of narration and argument and tone have been entrusted,” argues journalist Janet Malcolm in a Paris Review interview. “The presence of this idealized figure in the narrative only compounds the inequality between writer and subject that is the moral problem of journalism as I see it.” Bissinger is wrestling with this moral problem, of how you present yourself when you have the power to represent others, and the result is an honesty that is sometimes hard to read because it is not scrubbed of these dilemmas. It makes you realize how much we expect journalists to cover up the insoluble messes of their emotional relationships to their subjects, and how insightful they can be when they don’t.

After Friday Night Lights is available here